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New Book Goes Behind The Scenes Of Trump's Historic Impeachments; "Jihad Rehab" Doc Debate: When Criticism Becomes Cancellation; Tomato Prices Across U.S. Are Soaring Because Of Drought. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired October 17, 2022 - 07:30   ET




ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: A new book out tomorrow takes a closer look at how former President Donald Trump was able to evade not one but two attempts to remove him from office through impeachment. The book is called "Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress's Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump." The author has detailed missed opportunities that could have led to Trump's conviction with key lawmakers prioritizing their political interests.

They write, quote, "Trump escaped accountability not simply because his own party wouldn't stand up to him, but because the opposing party was also afraid to flex the full force of its constitutional muscle to check him. Republicans didn't just block and sabotage impeachment -- Democrats never went all in."

Joining us here on set are the authors of the book, Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian. Rachael is a CNN political analyst and the author of Politico Playbook, and Karoun is a Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. Thank you both so much for joining us this morning. Congratulations on the new book. It's full of just incredible detail.

You say that Democrats botched this. Karoun, how -- what were the biggest mistakes that they made in these two impeachment trials?


Look, there were opportunities where the Democrats could have exploited fervor on Capitol Hill to basically have a galvanizing moment to bring more Republicans along. And there were also opportunities in the investigation where they had the chance to call in witnesses, to run their subpoenas down, and try to force them through the courts.

And at various junctures they seem to have missed these moments -- failed to recognize the political urgency of moments they were in, such as on January 6 when some of Pelosi's own members wanted to impeach Trump that very night, knowing how angry Republicans were and take advantage of that moment. And the Democrat leaders said no, no, no -- we're not going to do that.

Or during the first and second impeachment where they had an opportunity to call witnesses like John Bolton or the aides to Mike Pence and shied away from it, basically, because they were afraid of maybe messing up the political calendar or interfering with Biden's agenda. And so, never went all in with the strength that they had.


And we basically show how these junctures, but for sometimes a person's confidence or a few hours would have created an opportunity where even if it didn't result in the conviction of Trump it would have resulted in impeachment -- the actual tool of impeachment being more durable. Having a precedent that was stronger for the next time when maybe the tables and the parties will be turned.

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, AUTHOR, POLITICO PLAYBOOK, AUTHOR, "UNCHECKED: THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND CONGRESS'S BOTCHED IMPEACHMENTS OF DONALD TRUMP": Not to mention persuading the public. Let's remember that after the first impeachment, Trump -- his poll numbers were the highest they had ever been. I mean, how successful can you say that was?

Obviously, a key character in our book is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and as someone who has covered her -- we've covered her for a really long time -- there was always this sort of undercurrent with every strategy decision she made when it came to these impeachments. And that was her fear that impeachment was a political boomerang that would blow back on her majority and hurt her political -- her frontliners in these vulnerable districts.

And so, because of that, she sort of pumped the brakes on impeachment over and over again and slowed -- a lot of Democratic chairmen were frustrated that she was slowing their efforts to sort of investigate Trump.

When she finally was pushed into the first impeachment, she put it on a fast timeline. She didn't want to take the time to fight and fight in court for witnesses. And she basically sidelined a bunch of investigative threads to only focus on Ukraine, again, for the calendar -- to get it all over with so her frontliners could pivot back to talking about pocketbook issues.

And so because of that, we've heard from a lot of Democrats who feel like they didn't build the strongest case that they could have to persuade the public, if not Republicans, of Trump's misdeeds.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: It's details like that that really make your book gripping. It really is gripping, so congratulations Karoun and Rachael to you on this -- on this effort here.

I also want to mention -- because everyone's familiar I think with this video that we saw last week, right -- this new video. And it shows -- it's mostly Speaker Pelosi but you also see, at the time, then-minority leader Chuck Schumer. And they are working on January 6 -- they're working the phones. You see -- there they are with Mitch McConnell.

This is a small snippet where they're with Republican leaders. They're trying to get the military called up. They're trying to get law enforcement called up. And I know that you have some more reporting on what was happening behind the scenes here.

DEMIRJIAN: Yes. I mean, I think this is like a pinhole camera version -- a view of what was actually going on at the secure facility on January 6. But in an adapted excerpt from the book that just ran yesterday in The Atlantic, we show that there was a much broader effort that actually involved the Republicans as well.

Mitch McConnell -- look, when they first were taken to Fort McNair, they were put in separate rooms and separated by party.

BADE: Yes.

DEMIRJIAN: And Mitch McConnell hits this point where he's trying to work the phones through his aides who are stuck in the riot in the Capitol. And he said forget this. He crosses the hall, he goes and finds the Democrats, and he's like Trump isn't going to help us. We have to help each other.

That's a galvanizing moment where the Republicans spearheaded it, right, which it just kind of goes to show you -- and we go into much more detail about what was going on there with both parties -- about how there was this opportunity on this day where they were all being attacked and they were all the victims of what this mob was doing where they could have had this moment. And that they lost it so quickly afterwards is -- it illustrates that much more of the tragedy of what follows -- to focus on everybody's actions on January 6 and what was going on.

And -- sorry -- just to add to -- add -- you know, we looked in that video. Pelosi -- and I mentioned a moment ago how there was this moment on January 6 where her people wanted to impeach Trump. She talks at one moment in that video about I'm going to punch him out. I'm going to punch out the president. She had an opportunity a few hours later to level a constitutional punch that might have knocked him out and she pulled it.

BADE: Yes. There were Democrats on the Hill who had privately started drafting an impeachment article that very night, approached Steny Hoyer on the floor, gave it to him, and said let's do this now when everybody's mad. They said no and they lost, potentially, some momentum there.

But it's also interesting because those four leaders -- I think that moment that you were just -- we were all just talking about is perhaps the only time in Trump's presidency when all four leaders were united to try to bring Trump to heel. And again, after that, things just fell apart.

I mean, we show in the book that Democrats behind the scenes were pressuring Jamie Raskin and his team, who were leading the second impeachment, to drop this sort of secret push they had to try to find GOP witnesses and get people like Mike Pence's aides to testify at the trial to try to change Republican minds in a moment where Trump was the most vulnerable.

And not only that but Republicans -- Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy -- we've all seen, obviously, ended up forgetting about that day and -- with McCarthy really hugging Trump within just a few days later.

DEMIRJIAN: It's a book that focuses -- we tend to think about impeachment as these higher callings to the Constitution and institutional things. We wrote the book as a story that definitely is conscious of those implications because the precedent for how impeachments are run matters -- there's not that many of them -- but also as a story about people and how flawed and -- you know, even people with good intentions sometimes do the wrong thing and there are historic consequences for it.

BADE: And --


MARQUARDT: And as this book comes out there's already talk of what could happen if Republicans take over the House in the next Congress.

DEMIRJIAN: A cautionary tale, yes.

MARQUARDT: It is a cautionary tale. Well, it's a terrific tale chock full of incredible anecdotes.

Congratulations again, Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian. Thank you so much for coming this morning.

The book is called "Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress's Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump." It is out tomorrow.

And the film industry turning its back on a documentary on terrorism, which originally opened to a positive reception. So what changed? John Avlon unpacks that next.


KEILAR: A documentary that first premiered to positive critical reception is now being pulled from festivals and being called racist and Islamophobic by some of the same people who once praised it.

John Avlon has more in today's Upon Further Review.


JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I want to tell you about a movie that premiered, documenting the alleged rehabilitation of accused terrorists.

Now, at first, many in the film industry cheered it on. Then some critics took issue, calling the movie racist and Islamophobic, and some of those same industry folks turned on the film. Now, in the end, the pilon wasn't necessarily because of the content but the person who made it, specifically, her race, her cultural identity, and her religious affiliation.

And now with the documentary in limbo, without distribution, there is a reassessment that's questioning this negative narrative, bringing the film initially known as "Jihad Rehab," now called "The UnRedacted," back into the conversation, if not into theaters yet. It's all upon further review.

Now, the debate races some big questions. Who gets to tell another person's story? Do they have to share the same identity? And what's the line between legitimate criticism and trying to cancel a film because it causes some people offense?

All right, let's take a step back. "The UnRedacted" is the product of interviews over three years with four Yemini men at a reverse radicalization program in Saudi Arabia. All had previously been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay as accused terrorists but never charged or brought to trial.

The director, a former California firefighter named Meg Smaker, set out to understand the individuals who had been so often reduced to stereotypes, tracking their progress, their regrets, and their frustrations.

I watched it and found it revealing because it dares to humanize people who, by their own admission, at least briefly fell under the sway of terrorist groups.

Here's a clip.


MEG SMAKER, DIRECTOR, "THE UNREDACTED": Do you ever think about people that were killed by the bombs?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I start thinking about it but I was thinking about it when I was in Guantanamo. It was the first time I watched the video of the plane hitting the building. But when you see the people jumping from the building it's not -- it's not victory.

We did horrible mistakes against the world, against our family, against our self.


AVLON: Now, if I were to guess who this documentary would be most likely to offend I'd probably guess 9/11-era conservatives or people who lost loved ones to terror attacks. But that's not actually what happened. Instead, the calls to shut that film down came from communities who might typically be considered progressive.

And the director was also a bit blindsided by this. Quote, "I was surprised that the calls to blacklist this film came from the progressive documentary film community -- a community that claims to champion freedom of expression."

Meg Smaker emailed (PH) me. "In my mind, any movie worth banning is a movie that is definitely worth seeing, but maybe that's just me."

Now, when the film first aired, the reaction was generally positive. It was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, along with South by Southwest. She was even proposed as a recipient of the prestigious Vanguard Award at her hometown San Francisco Film Festival. Big-time documentary producer and heiress Abigail Disney executive produced the film initially, pronouncing it freaking brilliant.

Then the backlash started to hit a deafening level. It came primarily from several Muslim filmmakers, as well as a controversial British- based advocacy group of ex-Guantanamo inmates known as CAGE.

The film was accused of a variety of sins characterized by the L.A. Times television critic Lorraine Ali, who also happens to be Muslim and defended the movie, as being, quote "Not so much the text of the film as the fact it was made by a white non-Muslim filmmaker."

In an open letter, CAGE pronounced it not just problematic but wrong- minded, with a violently Islamophobic narrative imposed on its subjects, as well as playing (PH) a reductive understanding of the concept of Jihad. The group requested that the filmmaker immediately withdraw the film from being shown any further.

Well, the pressure campaign worked. The Sundance Film Festival took the extraordinary step of publicly apologizing for showing the film, which led it to be sidestepped by South by Southwest and the San Francisco festivals despite initial invitations.

And then Abigail Disney backed out, issuing an extensive statement that apologized for the film landing like a truckload of hate while trying to, quote, "earnestly own the damage I had a hand in."

And with that, no distributor would touch it. When the film was accepted in the New Zealand Film Festival, the response from one critic (PH) was revealing, though. Quote, "Oh, wild -- controversial Sundance doc Jihad Rehab comes out of hiding. Why would anyone program this film after Sundance? File under 'we warned you.'"

OK. So, let's unpack all this criticism and see what, if any, of these allegations stick.

First, it's true that Meg Smaker is a white, American woman. She moved to the Middle East and learned Arabic. But if the accusation is that she is culturally biased against Muslims in ways that she can't possibly understand, surely it matters that her producer, co-director, and cinematographer are all Muslim.


Surely it matters that she changed the name of her film from "Jihad Rehab" to "The UnRedacted" in response to some of the concerns she heard, and highlighted the fact that the men were never officially charged with a crime.

And for what it's worth, some of the film's most prominent defenders are also Muslim, including L.A. Times critics Lorraine Ali and a former L.A. Imam named Jihad Turk, who described the movie as introspective and intelligent.

And another accusation is that the men didn't give permission for their stories to be told. Well, signed documents attested to by the film's lawyers suggest otherwise.

And as for CAGE's complaint that the men were coerced into confessing their alleged terrorist activities, they appeared to discuss freely in their own words their time as a bombmaker, or fighter for the Taliban, or training with al Qaeda.

Now, can people who are held in a government facility of any kind truly give permission and speak their mind? Well, that's a fair question. But given that some of the most famous documentaries in history involve prison interviews, including Errol Morris' iconic "Thin Blue Line," it would suggest this is not a disqualifier but it's worth being transparent about.

And the fact that the rehabilitation facility was backed by the Saudi government gives rise to another criticism that the film amounts to Saudi propaganda. But anyone who has actually seen the film can attest to its unflinching look at the expanded definition of terrorism under MBS, as well as the personal drift that occurs when the men are denied permission to work or leave Saudi Arabia.

Look, when you put any work into the world, inevitably, there will be some criticism. That goes with the territory, as Meg Smaker knows. Ideally, you hope it will spur conversation and debate informed by the work itself. But because of the controversy, it's difficult to see the film for yourself and make up your own mind. And that creates a Catch- 22 because legitimate criticism depends on watching the actual content as opposed to reacting to characterizations.

Accusations of Islamophobia and racism may be sincere but they also tend to shut down rather than encourage conversation. And then there's the more benign distancing, which declares the film as problematic -- an accusation through innuendo. The criticisms amplified via social media are loud enough that pushing back can be calculated to be a personal hassle or professionally unwise. It's easier just to stay silent.

But in recent weeks, stories in The New York Times by Michael Powell and the Reason by Robby Soave have brought attention to the attempts to sideline this doc. It will hopefully spur distribution to the film in defense of this idea that we share more than divides us as human beings. And as a result, we can try to tell each other's stories to make the particular a bit more universal. To create understanding if not always agreement.

As the Los Angeles Imam Jihad Turk said, "My hope is that there is a courageous outlet that is not intimidated by activists and their too narrow views."

That is to be seen upon further review.

KEILAR: Such a good point. How do you talk about the thing if you can't see the thing. AVLON: That's right.

KEILAR: John Avlon, thank you for that.

AVLON: Thanks, Bri.

KEILAR: Ahead, we'll take you live to Clarissa Ward. She is in Kyiv, Ukraine. She was just at the location where Russian drone strikes rocked the capital city and damaged critical infrastructure.

MARQUARDT: Plus, three weeks to go until the midterm elections. Ahead, the key races that are now heating up.


DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR AND CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: My question is will you accept the results of your election in November?

KARI LAKE, (R) ARIZONA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: I'm going to win the election and I will accept that result.

BASH: If you lose, will you accept that?

LAKE: I'm going to win the election and I will accept that result.




MARQUARDT: This morning, it seems like the price of everything at the grocery store is skyrocketing, including the cost for tomatoes. California is the center of this country's tomato production, but between a punishing drought and water use restrictions, tomato producers say there is just not enough water to meet demand.

CNN's Stephanie Elam reports.


AARON BARCELLOS, FARMER, A-BAR AG ENTERPRISES: We pick it at the peak of freshness.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For 25 years --

BARCELLOS: It's a great product. There's a sense of home to it.

ELAM (voice-over): -- Aaron Barcellos has grown tomatoes in California's Central Valley.

BARCELLOS: This year was a below-average year for us.

ELAM (voice-over): But between the crushing 3-year drought and the rising cost of growing tomatoes --

BARCELLOS: We're just at the mercy of Mother Nature.

ELAM (voice-over): -- farmers like Barcellos are feeling the squeeze as their margins get sliced and diced.

BARCELLOS: We had a little over 500 acres. We fallowed over 2,000 acres of ground that normally go to tomatoes. We just did not have the water to go ahead and grow. And during the drought, our water triples and quadruples in price as well.

ELAM (voice-over): But it's not just water. Due to inflation, farmers are also paying more for fuel and fertilizers. Those added costs are then reflected in consumer products.

BARCELLOS: There aren't any farmers making any money on tomatoes in California this year, even with the record prices.

ELAM (voice-over): Take a summertime drive on Interstate 5 through the Central Valley and it's nearly impossible to miss the trucks of tomatoes being hauled straight from harvest to production.

MIKE MONTNA, PRESIDENT AND CEO, CALIFORNIA TOMATO GROWERS ASSOCIATION: Ninety-five percent of the processed tomato products consumed in the United States come right here from California's Central Valley.

ELAM (on camera): As California's tomato growers are at the end of their harvesting season, there just hasn't been enough tons of tomatoes to harvest this year versus last year, which means there's less to go around, which means prices will go up -- something that consumers will feel when they go to the grocery store.

ELAM (voice-over): These are tomatoes that become ingredients in sauces, soups, and salsas. The California Tomato Growers Association said its members produced about 14 percent less this year than originally intended.

MONTNA: What makes this different is this is about our fourth year in a row of having a shorter crop than what we wanted. Ultimately, it does come down to water.

ELAM (on camera): You've grown up in the Central Valley. Is the climate the same as it was when you were growing up?

BARCELLOS: It has definitely changed. We are seeing hotter streaks during the summer. More extremes between cool and warm. And I don't know what an average year is anymore.

ELAM (voice-over): Barcellos says tomato crop --